This episode we responded to a listener question about public displays of affection (PDAs). They were particularly concerned about how to navigate PDAs in a non-monogamous relationship: to what extent is it acceptable for their partner to be physically affectionate with another partner in a social situation when they are also around?
Initially we broadened this out to consider all contexts where PDAs happen, not just non-monogamous relationships. There’s some potential consent issues here between the people concerned – whatever their relationship is – and in relation to the other people around in the social situation where the PDA is happening. For example, it can be just as troubling for a friend if their mate spends a lot of their time together in the pub making out with a partner or casual hookup as it is for a non-monogamous partner. And other people around the public displays of affection can struggle just as much with it when it is in a monogamous context.
One caveat here is checking whether the issue is a consent issue or a normativity issue though. Because of social norms historically a lot of people have had far more trouble with PDAs between non-normative partners than between normative ones. It’s worth asking yourself – if you’re struggling to see hand-holding or kissing between a same-sex couple, for example, or a triad – whether you’d have the same issues if it was a seemingly normative heterosexual couple.
There’s also an issue here around what counts as sex. If public displays of affection are very erotic then the people doing it might be unwittingly non-consensually involving other people around them in a sex act. For example, fondling and snogging in a pub puts other people in the position of having to decide whether to look – and potentially become aroused – or not. It’s worth thinking carefully here about the context: the rules will likely be different in a general pub, a queer bar, a kink munch, and a play party – for example. Also, there are activities that most people would agree do not count as sex, those that definitely do, and a middle ground which can be a grey area – understood in different ways by different people. On the podcast we talked, for example, about kink dynamics which may be part of people’s everyday lives and not sexual in the everyday setting.
There is also the meaning of the activity for the people concerned. For example, some may be uncomfortable with a couple handholding because they see it as a sign of possession or as excluding them from that intimacy. Others may find it makes them feel included that the couple are comfortable holding hands while they chat to them, or they might understand that this handholding is because one person is socially anxious and finds it grounding. It’s worth understanding the meaning for the people concerned, and for them to be mindful of the meaning it has for you.
Considering our approach to consent, we like a third handshake approach where the people doing the PDA are mindful of everyone around them and how it might be experienced by them, and where they tune in – for example if others are turning away or looking uncomfortable. If you find it hard to pick up on such cues – for any reason – then being more second handshake about it and checking out explicitly how it is for other people can be a great approach before doing it. This could be a useful conversation to have in any social group anyway.
Turning to the specific example of non-monogamous relationships, again this is a really useful conversation to have. How does everybody involved feel about PDAs of various kinds, about physical affection generally, and about more sexual forms of contact happening in front of them? Some communities can promote a sense that everybody should be okay with everything but that is certainly not the case. It’s absolutely fine to find some things difficult, and to experience feelings like jealousy, exclusion, or insecurity. Talking about these kinds of things in advance is a great idea, as is opening up multiple possible ways of addressing any difference in needs and desires. For example, if one pair love PDAs, and the third person finds them uncomfortable maybe they can agree to not go to social situations as a three, or to not have PDAs on the ones they do attend all together, or to limit PDAs to certain things that do feel okay to everyone, or to spend some of the event all together and then separate off so PDAs can become possible, or perhaps there’s something that would make it more comfortable to the third person – like getting to know the other person better, or having another person there with them.
In all these kinds of situations the vital point is that everyone’s feelings are equally valid and valuable. It’s fine for those who enjoy PDAs to enjoy them, it’s fine for those who find them uncomfortable to find them uncomfortable. Coming from that starting point – without shaming anyone – makes it possible to explore options that could meet everyone’s needs. It’s also okay that inevitably sometimes people will do something that inadvertently hurts the other person – because they weren’t aware they would find it hard – and this can be an experience to learn from for next time.
© Meg-John Barker & Justin Hancock